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Dismantling the United Nations system

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Dismantling the United Nations system

Tim Murithi

24 Oct 2017

5min min read
  • United Nations. Security Council
  • Global Order

The UN system is overdue for an overhaul, writes Professor Tim Murithi. He proposes a new, inclusive global order in which African states are ''equal actors on the world stage".


n recent months, the United States has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). As America retreats from multilateralism, Africa must decide whether to view the actions of the world’s largest economy as a crisis worthy of an extended soul-searching lament, or a once in a lifetime opportunity to contribute towards remaking the global order. This can be done by dismantling the United Nations (UN) system and creating a new one that includes the aspirations of African states as equal actors on the world stage. 

The international liberal order is currently in free-fall; its unravelling has begun. Citizens of other parts of the world, predominantly in Western Europe, who benefited from this global liberal order will be entering a prolonged phase of self-introspection and confusion. To be clear, the principles upon which the international liberal order were founded were noble: the promotion of human freedom, democratic governance and the rule of law. However, this was an aspiration that did not constrain the excesses of successive US administrations and their European allies from behaving in an illiberal manner in other parts of the world. 

This was evident in Africa, Latin America and Asia where the West undermined ‘liberal values’ by overtly and covertly supporting repressive regimes that unleashed untold human rights violations, economic corruption and violent conflict, so long as they were aligned with ‘Western’ interests. This included support to the apartheid regime in South Africa, the oppressive regime of Mobutu Sese Seko in then Zaire and the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), among other situations. 

The UN as a system was incapable and, to some extent, unwilling to confront the human rights abuses of the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa. As illustrated in Hennie van Vuuren’s book Apartheid Guns and Money, the permanent five members of the Security Council were involved in enabling apartheid South Africa to avoid sanctions and to sustain a supply of weapons which were utilised to continue perpetrating racial terror in the country.

A system which was created to sustain peace and security and improve the well-being of humanity has become dysfunctional to the point that its continued functioning is a clear and present danger to the future of human survival. This is evident its failure to prevent extremely violent conflicts from spilling over in the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia. 

To illustrate this, four out of five of the permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC) have been involved in war-fighting in Syria, a conflict which was initiated without the appropriate UN authorisation and which the P5 have been ineffective at resolving. The air strikes, aimed at containing the ISIS threat, are in direct violation of the UN Charter, which pledges "to save successive generations from the scourge of violence". While the Security Council dithers on a decision to solve the crisis, Syrian lives continue to be lost. 

In 2016, 65.6 million people worldwide were forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the world is facing record numbers of global forced displacement. In 2016, 65.6 million people worldwide were forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution. What is the purpose of the UN, if not to address such a global challenge? However, the UN-supported Global Refugee Compact has been delayed until 2018, which is symptomatic of an organisation that is ineffectual and moribund when urgency and proactivity are required.

 The effectiveness of UN peacekeeping warrants similar scrutiny. Anecdotal evidence from people in war-affected parts of Africa has revealed a dissatisfaction with extensive and protracted UN peacekeeping operations that are not achieving the basic objective of creating the foundations for peace in the eastern DRC, Central African Republic (CAR) and Darfur, for example. 

To make matters worse, UN peacekeepers have been accused of sexual abuse and exploitation against the women and young children they were sent to protect, the most recent incidents being in the CAR and eastern DRC.  A clear sign that the UN has lost its moral compass is its failure to directly tackle the issue of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers. UN Secretary-General António Gutierrez has waxed lyrical about the need to address gender-based violence and issued a few choice statements, but this is not backed by an evident movement that prioritises addressing the scourge.

Africa’s seat at the table 

Historically, Africa, as well as some other parts of the world, have been excluded from the design and construction of the global order. Negotiation processes at the UN Security Council perpetuate this exclusion. Logically, it does not make sense for a continent of over one billion people not to have “permanent” representation on the UN Security Council, particularly when more than 60% of the Council’s work relates to Africa. This is therefore an international system of governance that has no legitimacy from an African perspective. A similar argument has been made by India and Brazil, which are also among the most populated countries in the world. 

In 2005, the African Union proposed reform of the Security Council through the Ezulwini Consensus, which calls for Africa to have two permanent seats (including veto power) and five non-permanent seats on the Security Council. It was largely rebuffed by members of the UNSC, notably the P5, and so the initiative remains in abeyance.

Should Africa continue to support an illegitimate system of global governance? The sentiment at last year’s AU Summit was no. African states should now build a coalition of the marginalised and dispossessed in order to actively lead the campaign to dismantle the ageing and anachronistic UN system, particularly the Security Council, and replace it with new institutions that seek to deepen global democracy, justice and reconciliation.

It is also time for African countries to start building a coalition of the willing within the UN General Assembly to trigger Article 109 that calls for a review conference of the UN Charter, and which cannot be vetoed by the permanent members of the Security Council. The activation of Article 109 is several decades overdue – the UN has never convened a review conference to discuss its effectiveness in global governance. 

What could replace the UN system?

Drawing upon the principles of human freedom, solidarity, justice and reconciliation which African people have long fought - and continue to fight - for, a new global system can be designed around the creation of a World Parliament. Three representatives from each of the 210 countries and territories, irrespective of religious or ideological orientation, would create a global legislative chamber of 600 people. In addition, a Supranational Council of the Regions can be created to be convened by the regions of the world, including the AU, the European Union (EU), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), the Organisation of American State (OAS) and the Arab League. 

The Supranational Council of the Regions would be the supreme decision-making body of the newly created global system. Nation states would continue to exist but their powers would be devolved upwards to the Supranational Council of the Regions and downwards to a Committee of Subnational Groups, who continue to challenge the legitimacy of states to define their cultural way of life. In addition, an International Security Force and the operations of such a new global system would be financed by the taxation of global financial flows, which has already been proposed to address the transnational challenges which are beyond the ability of any single country. 

While some countries choose to retreat into their cocoon of partisan nationalism, the era of globalisation is here to stay. The challenge is to create institutions that are able to respond to pressing international issues more effectively than they are doing now. Consequently, African countries need to assist in the progressive process of dismantling the UN and redesigning the global system to reflect human equality and global democracy.

Download the paper 'Africa and the Remaking of Global Order' here

(Main image: John Gillespie/ United Nations/ Flickr)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.